Imagine you have grown up in a good family. You have worked hard through school and in your current job. Something has always driven you to give back, so you volunteer and assist with food shelter lines every weekend. You’ve done it for over three months now, and it never fails – every single week, there are some nasty encounters with people you are there to help. They are disrespectful to you no matter how nice you try to be. What’s more is that you notice they are always of a particular race. What the heck is going on? Why are these people so nasty? Why is this race so nasty?
Now imagine you grew up in this same area, and you used to live in a shelter with your mom when you were younger. It wasn’t easy growing up, and you remember, going to those lines with her time and again. Every time, you would overhear a volunteer saying something negative about everyone in the line. Under their breath, they’d say things like, “She stinks so bad.” “They’ve been coming here for months; why haven’t they figured it out yet?” “They should be more thankful we’re even doing this for them.” All you remember seeing were volunteers of another race, always having so much to give. Why were they saying mean things under their breath? Why was it always the other race that seemed to have plenty?
Uncertainty and Curiosity
The truth is that these negative contrasts are going to exist in life. We have to live with them and deal with them in the most effective way. In caveman and cavewoman days, we would instinctively avoid uncertain situations. If a random, unknown tribe came to our doorstep, there would likely be a lot of apprehension until we figured out a few things about them.
This idea of uncertainty is something that we relate to at a primitive level with our instincts. Inside our brains, we have something called the ‘limbic system,’ which is a major center that processes emotions, among other things. Essentially, when we encounter situations that are ‘unknown’ or ‘uncertain’ without any filter whatsoever, we will often generate anxious feelings, which are very close to fear and possibly aggression. When we meet uncertain things and the unknown, our minds are ultimately saying, ‘be careful.’ For those who have limited or filtered interactions with members of another race, there is a persistent ‘unknown,’ which will automatically relate to some form of low-level negative emotion. (Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky discusses these phenomena on a neurological level.)
Something, however, that also comes along with uncertainty is often curiosity. In an ideal world, we would slowly increase our curiosity when we are uncertain, instead of just fear and anxiety. Each time the unknown tribe would come around, we would slowly increase our knowledge and, therefore, remove the uncertainty. The problem is, if our limited experiences are negative, we become more ‘certain’ of negative conclusions. Then, based on our conclusion and focus, our attention naturally turns to others that ‘echo’ what we are thinking and feeling.
As we have discussed in “Echo Chamber and Overfitting,” if we are in a group that has only a limited perspective, we become bound by that limitation. We end up perpetuating the same negative questions and thoughts by relating to everyone else in the group. In our scenario, we would strengthen our negative views of the other race, and it can become very difficult to see or believe otherwise.
The echo chamber in social media and the internet is a real phenomenon that causes those in the group to maintain a perception limited to the group’s beliefs and experiences. Think about the ads that we get in our email or as we scroll. The things that are advertised to us are targeted to things we want to see and hear. We naturally tend to unsubscribe from groups we don’t agree with, and we subscribe to groups we do agree with.
The last thing we need is to be trapped in an echo chamber of things that are negative or perpetuate one-sided rhetoric, especially regarding an entire group of people.
Is It Really a Problem?
For those who say racism isn’t real, let’s erase the term racism and ask is disliking something real? Is disgust real? Is uncertainty real? Are experiences and social interactions real? By the nature of these dynamics, if we grow up, learn, and see primarily negative experiences with a particular race, we will likely end up with some form of aversion to that race.
Racism is only one negative result of limited experiences and our primitive instincts. Although ‘racism’ isn’t an emotion per se, it captures many negative emotions. Whenever we have a series of negative emotions focused on a person or group of people, it will be very similar to racism. Hate and various forms of animosity, disgust, jealousy, etc. are all emotions that we can feel for various reasons. Despite their negativity, emotions are there to instinctually protect us in some way and help us learn.
The fallacy, however, is to think that because our mind painted this negative picture, it is correct, or that we should just blindly trust our instincts as we are often told. If we were just like animals, this would be fine. It wouldn’t matter. We’d just continue to fight over territory, eradicate those that are threats and appeal to our instincts. But clearly, we’re more than just a ball of instincts.
An easy way to expand our knowledge and experiences is to constantly look for contrasts. We have to explore areas that we don’t normally pursue or are strikingly different from our own views. Seeking the contrast can help us be balanced and make sure we aren’t inadvertently trapped in an echo chamber.
Thankfully, there’s a contrast to the echo chamber as well; the internet and social media can help to provide a means to interact and get to know people of other races all over the world, helping us reduce uncertainty and increase the ratio of positive experiences.
These contrasts are easy to spot (if we look) but often difficult to understand. Contrasts can have us looking at taboo topics or areas that we may even vehemently disagree with. How are we supposed to entertain learning or exploring something we despise or hate? Just treat it like a science experiment, keep asking ‘why,’ and be open to the results.
Ideally, we all will strive to push for a higher level of knowledge and understanding at all times. We may not always want to. It may be uncomfortable. It may challenge our beliefs so much that we don’t know what to believe anymore. Even still, let’s keep pushing forward to improve, explore, experience, and live. Instead of staying in the comfortable confines of our beliefs, let’s venture out and learn as much as we can about this thing called life.